Wednesday, February 29, 2012


I am really fascinated with Albania’s music.  And I didn’t realize I was. Among some of the instruments, one of the early ones was the lahuta, a one-stringed lute-like instrument. But as they say, one is the loneliest number, and it soon gave way to a more popular two-stringed version called çiftelia.  Probably introduced during the 500 years of Ottoman rule, the medium sized frame drum with jingles called the dajreja is used for keeping rhythm. It seems similar to the tambourine, which is also used.

But one style that struck me is the vocal iso polyphony heard in the southern regions.  If you listen, it gives the same effect as a bagpipe (which is also used in Albanian music): you have a drone note and the melody on top.  There is a leader, who’ll sing the introductory phrase and the others will follow.  There are several groups who have formed in recent years in an effort to preserve Albania’s traditional folk music.

Classical music is also on the rise with several prominent music conservatories focusing on creating Albanian composers and classical musicians. Opera seems to be one of the fortes (no pun intended), especially given it’s proximity to Italy. Probably one of the most famous opera singers in Albania is Inva Mula. She was the voice of the Diva Plavalaguna in the movie The Fifth Element. You know the song -- it's the best part of the movie. 

As far as modern music goes, I came across two that impressed me: Genta Ismajli and Bertan Asllani. I found Genta’s 2011 album Guximi available on iTunes for $9.99. I’m definitely planning on buying it (although it’s also available to listen to on Spotify).  

I’m not able to find very many songs for Bertan, except a few individual songs on iTunes and a few more on Spotify. But unfortunately I can't find this song and I really like it. I do believe he has a Facebook page and I could probably find info there. 

Because of the influence from the Ottomans, mosaic art is very popular. Mural paintings are also quite popular. Probably one of the most widely known mosaic artists is Saimir Strati, who have won numerous Guinness World Records for his work. His work is pretty cool. I’d love to see it up close. Of course mosaic art is one of my favorite mediums, so I’m a little partial. This particular mosaic is make of cork. 

Early Albanian texts were strictly religious works and historical documents. Pjetër Budi was one of the first to write poetry in Albanian. Of course Albanian literature went through its eras, just like English literature does. Ismail Kadare is thought of as one of the best-known contemporary authors. Fifteen of his novels have been translated into 40 languages, bringing Albanian literature to accessibility in Europe and throughout the world.  There are many of his books available through Amazon and many of those are also available for the Kindle – some as low as $3.19! You can’t beat inexpensive literature. Definitely thinking of making a Kindle purchase in the near future…

Next up: Food!

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Because of Albania’s history, ethnic and religious backgrounds, their holidays and celebrations reflect this.  There are some holidays that are official holidays deemed by the government, and then there are holidays where you still have to show up for work. Along with national holidays, there are many cultural and arts festivals throughout the year in many cities and towns throughout the country.

New Years Day: January 1-2.  New Years in Albania is usually celebrated by staying up past midnight and like many places, fireworks are involved. It’s usually spent with family and friends and there are usually large feasts, sweets and drinking involved.

Teacher’s Day: March 7.  Not an official holiday, still considered a work day. Prior to 1887, the Catholic Church ran the schools in central and northern Albania, while the Orthodox Church ran the schools in the southern part of the country. The first secular school teaching in the Albanian language was in the southern city of Korçë. 

Mother’s Day: March 8.  It’s generally celebrated in many of the same ways, as it would be around the world. One of the traditions is to give a simple gift of a mimosa sprig. 

Summer Day: Mar. 14.  This is an official and national holiday.  Obviously this is a celebration about summer, even though it seems strange me to me to think of a summer celebration being in March in the northern hemisphere. But apparently, it is more of a celebration for the end of winter.  (Still, whatever happened to spring?) It’s celebrated in various cities with various summer-like activities that include marathons, circuses, and music.

Nevruz Day: March 22.  Also called Nowruz, it’s the Persian New Year; it’s aligned with the spring equinox and has its roots in the Zoroastrian religion. While it’s celebrated in many countries that have a large Muslim population, Nevruz is celebrated for four days in Albania.

April Fool’s Day: April 1. Not an official holiday. Similar to how it’s celebrated elsewhere in the world with practical jokes.

Catholic Easter/Orthodox Easter: varies. Christians in Albania also celebrate Easter by decorating eggs (even though it’s actually a pagan practice pre-dating Christianity) and going to church.

May Day: May 1.  May Day itself is related to Beltane or Walpurgis Night (which may be familiar to you if you’ve read Goethe’s “Faust”).  It falls exactly six months after All Saint’s Day (also known as Samhain). It’s more or less a celebration including bonfires celebrating the start of the planting season, among other traditions that vary upon location.

Children’s Day: June 1. Not an official holiday. While it’s celebrated in many countries, in Albania, parents give presents to kids and take them to parades and celebrations.

Mother Teresa Day: October 19.  This is an official and national holiday. Mother Teresa is probably the one of the most famous Albanians and is remembered for her charity worldwide.

Independence Day: November 28.  Declared in 1912 marking the end of five centuries of Ottoman control.  Flags are raised and many local celebrations take place in many towns and cities. 

Liberation Day: November 29.  Celebrating the liberation from Nazi Germany. It seems to be more like Memorial Day in the US, where there are ceremonies for fallen soldiers, war heroes, and the playing of the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

National Youth Day: December 8.  This is an official and national holiday.

Midwinter, Christmas: December 25.  Christians in Albania celebrate Christmas by many of the same practices celebrated throughout the world. Many people celebrate by a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and/or going to church on Christmas morning. People visit their families and give gifts. Albanians also decorate Christmas trees and have elaborate meals that include baklava.

Keep in mind, that the religious holidays were banned for almost an entire generation, so many of these traditions have just started back up in the past 20 years.

Next up: Music, Arts, and Literature

Wikipedia: “Public Holidays in Albania”, “New Years Day”, “Teachers Day”, “Mother’s Day”, “Summer Day”, “Nevruz Day”, “April Fool’s Day”, “May Day”, “Mother Teresa”, “Independence Day”, “Liberation Day”

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Albania is a land of old and new, ancient ruins and building up from scratch. I have to admit, I didn’t know a lot about Albania. I think I remember it being briefly mentioned when I was reading “Corelli’s Mandolin” by Louis de Bernières (good book, by the way).

Albania’s geography has a lot to do with the people, culture, arts and food. First off, it was situated between two major civilizations of the ancient world: Roman to the west of it and Greek to the south and east of it. The country itself is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland; the capital Tirana being almost in the middle. It’s a coastal country, bordered by both the Adriatic Sea and Ionian Sea, just across the sea from Italy. Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Greece border the other sides.

Albania is mountainous, with only about 20% of the land being arable. It is rich with natural resources, but years of communist rule have left the country with little to no money to invest into mining. It’s like the old adage, “You need money to make money.” It’s quite rural, although there are a few larger cities with Tirana being the largest (it has about 421,000 – about the size of Atlanta, Georgia).

Because I’m a linguist, I’m somewhat fascinated with the Albanian language. It’s an Indo-European language, but it sort of stands alone. While it shares certain similarities with other nearby languages, it really is in a group all by itself. It’s practically only spoken in Albania, with the exception of spilling over the borders a little and in countries that are the result of Albanian diaspora. Only about 7.5 million speakers speak Albania; that’s less than the entire population of London, England! 

While it was under communist rule, there was a decree against any kind of religious observance. Every mosque and church closed in 1967 and was not allowed to reopen until 1990.  Because of that, there aren’t really any hard numbers on religion in Albania, but unofficial numbers are that around 70% of Albanians are Muslim, with only 20% Albanian Orthodox and 10% Roman Catholic.

While the majority of Albanians has access to clean water and sanitation and generally have high literacy rates, unemployment remains high, and it is still one of the poorest countries in Europe.  But I’m really thrilled to delve into the culture of Albania. I’ve truly become interested in this little-known country, and I’m really excited to show you the best sides of it.

Next up: Holidays and Celebrations

Wikipedia articles: “Albania,” “Tirana,” “List of US cities by population,” “World’s largest municipalities by population”

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Now I’ve gotten to the part that was the original idea of this blog: the food.

The first thing I had to do was find the recipes, and then I had to find the ingredients.  Finding the recipes weren’t hard, but some of the ingredients were.  I never did find ground cilantro seeds. So, I left it out. And I wasn’t able to find minced lamb, so I bought a lamb shoulder chop and Googled how to mince something. My Martha Stewart Cooking School book didn’t say anything about mincing. And then there were some things that I just forgot to pick up at the store. You know, a usual shopping trip for me.

The first thing I made was the Afghan rote bread. Of course my kids said they were gonna help me, but then somehow the Lego Harry Potter game was more exciting. Go figure.  I felt like I was living the Little Red Hen story. I’m embarrassingly undomesticated, so Google and I spent a lot of time together before getting started. It was going well, until I realized that I forgot to Google the proper way to knead bread. I just made it up as I went and relied on children’s stories from the past as my guide to kneading. Apparently it went well because it turned out really tasty. The real recipe called for sprinkling sesame seeds and sia dona on it (apparently this is nigella seeds; still not sure where to find it or what it is exactly), but my husband absolutely hates “debris” or “rocks and sticks” as he puts it on and in his bread. So instead, I did chop up some slivered almonds and sprinkle them on top. It took a little longer to bake as indicated, but that was probably because I was using silicone baking dishes and that might have something to do with the added time.

While it was cooling, I made kahvi tea. I’m not sure if it’s so much specific to Afghanistan, but it is popular in the region, so it counts.  It did make the whole house smell wonderful. When it was done, I made the kids stop playing the game and eat the bread and tea with me. My 6-year-old daughter really liked it, but my 3-year-old son is pretty much contrary to everything right now.

Later came the main entrée: kofta challow. The longest part was cutting the fat off of the lamb chop and then mincing it, which took forever! I have learned of some other Asian grocery stores that may have it already minced, or at least can mince it for me. After I made the meatballs, I made the korma sauce.  The onions and cumin alone made the house smell very spicy.  Then I had to put the meatballs into the sauce and let it simmer. My problem is that I burnt the onions and didn’t stir it enough, but since it’s served on basmati rice, it still turned out pretty good. I was afraid the kids wouldn’t even touch it, but they ate more of it than I thought they would.

In normal Afghan culture, the family sits on cushions on the floor to eat. And traditionally, they eat with their right hands. We used pillow pets, and I did let my 3-year-old use a spoon (even though most of the time he uses his hands anyway, so I thought he'd enjoy it, but sticking with being contrary, he finally insisted on using silverware). I forgot to buy pitas, so the next closest thing I had was sundried tomato and basil tortillas. Not authentic, but functional. We talked about some of the things that I had mentioned in the earlier posts for this blog. I think my daughter was fairly interested and asked questions, which I was proud of. Overall, for the first time doing this, I’d say it was a success.  And I’ve found that ground cardamom is my new favorite spice, narrowly beating out crushed red pepper. I would die happy if they made a cardamom-scented candle or spray. (Crushed red pepper, however, would NOT make a good candle. On a related note, pepper spray is not cool either.) 

At the end of this, I’m hoping they come to realize that we are all from the same world, and we’re all linked by music, literature, arts, and food.  And I hope they realize the world goes beyond their driveway.  You won’t find my kids insisting there really is an Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.

Next country: Albania

Kahvi tea:

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Here’s one of my favorite things: ethnomusicology.  I actually have a degree in music from Indiana State University, and world music was one of my favorite classes.  Although I knew that every country has its own music, there were parts that were somewhat “outside the box” of the Western music that we are more familiar with. It really opened my eyes to what music really is.

MUSIC:  When it comes to Afghan music, there are many similarities to the music of India and of Persia. The Afghans have taken certain musical styles and instruments and made it their own by making some subtle changes. One instrument that is popular in Afghan music is a drum called the tabla.  There are two drums played together, similar to bongos, where the smaller one is usually tuned to a pitch (usually tonic, dominant or subdominant) and the larger one has more of resonating bass tones.  

The rubab is a small stringed instrument that is similar to a lute. Now, I’m not a string person (yes, I know the piano has strings, but I normally can’t see them, so it doesn’t count), so I’m reaching beyond my scope of knowledge here. But there are a ton of strings on the rubab: three melody strings, three drone strings and 11 or 12 resonance strings that are plucked. Beyond that, it’s a mystery. But I love the sound.

One of the traditional dances is called the attan. It has its roots in Zoroastrian culture, and started out as a folk dance, but was adapted into the Islamic culture of Afghanistan. It’s danced to the music of drums, usually a dhol (a traditional double-headed drum), during times of celebration. Different areas have their own versions of the dance.

They do have their own pop music that became popular starting in the 1950s. And in some multi-cultural areas, like in Kabul, you’ll even find Afghan hip-hop. It’s not too bad if you’ve got an open mind. I even liked some of the songs I’ve heard. Too bad I can’t find it anywhere in the US. At least not where I’ve looked yet.

ART:  If you look at architecture in Afghanistan, you’ll find remnants of several cultures and peoples that have lived or occupied the area at one point in time or another, mainly Persian, Arab, Indian, and Buddhist architectural styles across the country. Unfortunately, years of war have destroyed a lot of historical buildings and sculptures. The Afghans are also known for their jewelry, especially pieces made from gold. Because of its location along the Silk Road, the Afghans also learned how to develop ceramics from the Chinese, and you’ll find ceramic tile art as well as pottery. Afghan blankets are also popular and can be seen all over the world along with Afghan rugs.  

LITERATURE: Most early literature and poetry had been passed down verbally in the traditional sense because many people at that time could not read or write. (Literacy still happens to be a problem today in Afghanistan.)  There are several poets who are listed as being influential, including Khushal Khan Khattak who is often thought of as a national hero. Folktales are a popular form of teaching history, beliefs and life lessons. During the their many times of war, most poetry and literature tends to center around Islam and freedom and bringing the people together as Afghans. There are a few modern authors who have become popular, namely Khaled Hosseini, whose book “The Kite Runner” was a best-seller and motion picture. I’ve not read it yet, but it’s been on my list for a while now.

The arts show a sense of the soul of the nation and who has influenced it. Although this is a country that struggles and has struggled in the past, it knows who it is at the heart of it all. You can sense that struggle and the effects of occupations and wars in its literature; you can sense the influence of their neighbors and friendships in their music and rich history through their art.

Next up, it’s time to eat.

Wikipedia articles: “Khaled Hosseini,” “Music of Afghanistan,” “Tabla,” “Rubab,” “Attan”
Afghanistan’s Web Site – Literature:
Afghanistan’s Web Site – Art and Architecture:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I’m always interested in holidays and celebrations. To me, this is the heart of the people: what makes them happy, what is important enough to stop working for. And who doesn’t like a holiday?  Ebenezer Scrooge, perhaps. There are a few public holidays I’ll mention, although there are probably a lot of other local festivals and celebrations of course, but these are some of the main ones for the nation as a whole.

MAWLID: It’s basically celebrating the birth of the prophet Muhammad. In many places, there are large street parades and festivals, and many people decorate their homes and mosques for Mawlid. It’s also a time for charity and especially sharing food, reading stories and reciting poems about the prophet.

NOWRUZ: Also known as Persian New Year, based on the Iranian calendar going back to the Zoroastrian times. It also coincides with the spring equinox. While the celebrations vary in other countries that celebrate Nowruz, Afghans usually celebrate it for two weeks and includes a number of activities, including a buzkashi tournament. Buzkashi is an Afghan national sport, where is the object is for skilled horseback riders to capture the headless carcass of a goat or calf at full gallop and drop it in a circle or vat to clear it away from the other riders. Not much different from the Thanksgiving Day football game. Clearly, it’s related. My 6-year-old daughter generally wasn’t interested in this game at all, but my 3-year-old son thought this was cool.  People from all over the country gather in the city of Mazari Sharif to celebrate Nowruz, including the tulip festival among the celebrations.  A number of special foods are made at this time, including haft mewa (fruit salad made with 7 different dried fruits), samanak (a sweet dish made from wheat germ), sabzi chalaw (a dish of rice and spinach).

INDEPENDENCE DAY: August 19. They celebrate their independence from British control in 1919.

EID UL-FITR: This is a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday of fasting. There are special greetings at this time, and it’s usually celebrated for three days. They clean out their homes and buy new clothes and special food. There are special prayers to be said for the holiday. It’s a time to spend time with family and friends, and the children usually get special monetary gifts from parents and grandparents.

EID AL-ADHA:  This is a Muslim holiday aimed around the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. People generally wear their best clothes and say special prayers for this as well. People will sacrifice an animal that has to meet certain requirements regarding its age and quality.  Afterwards, the family keeps one part, another part is given to other family members, and the last part is given to the needy. Of course, if you live in an urban setting, you can give money or meat to the needy or organizations that take care of that.

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: March 8. This is an official holiday in Afghanistan.  Given Afghanistan’s history under the Taliban, who have a history of violating human rights in regards to women, this holiday must mean a lot. I was really happy to see that it is celebrated here.

Keep in mind many of the Muslim holidays are not based on the Gregorian calendar, but are based on the Islamic calendar. It’s more or less based on the moon position and other things, so these holidays change dates every year. (It’s kind of like how Easter changes dates every year.) 

There are also a number of bank holidays: Earth Day, International Day of Action to Eradicate Global Poverty, United Nations Day, Mount Arafat Day, Universal Children’s Day, World AIDS Day, and Liberation Day.

Next up: Music, Art, and Literature

Wikipedia articles: “International Women’s Day,” “Public Holidays in Afghanistan,” “Mawlid,” “Nowruz,” “Afghan Independence Day,” “Eid ul-Fitr,” “Eid al-Adha”

Sunday, February 12, 2012


In a way, I’m sort of glad this was the first country to start out with. It’s a difficult country to start with because there are a lot of ill-feelings between the United States and Afghanistan in recent history.  I mean, we invaded their country and have been at war for several years now. So, how do you talk about a country that we’re at war with to young children in an objective light?  First we’ll start with where it is.

First of all, it’s landlocked. That means that there are no borders that touch an ocean or a part of an ocean. It’s capital is Kabul, in the eastern part of the country. The country itself is located in Asia and slightly smaller than the size of Texas. The country is divided into 34 provinces.  However, most of the country is rugged and mountainous, with only about 12% of the land can be farmed.  One of the largest landforms are the Hindu Kush mountains which run from the north to the south. Unfortunately because of this, Afghanis are prone to earthquakes and droughts.  But on a good note, one of the highest peaks in the Hindu Kush, Mt. Noshaq, has just recently re-opened to climbers after being closed for security purposes.  I suppose that’s good if you're a climber. I, however, will be staying down here. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights; I just hate cold weather. (And although I’m sure it has an original meaning, I first saw it as “No Shaq.” And I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone said when Shaquille O’Neill announced he wanted to be a rapper.)

Their national emblem is a lion, as well as the Marco Polo sheep, and the eagle is the national bird. The tulip is the national flower (which surprised me it wasn’t the poppy.)  The crescent moon and star is also seen as a nation symbol since Islam is so important to the everyday lives of Afghans.

Kabul is the largest city with around 3.8 million people.  That’s a little more than the city of Los Angeles, CA. Afghanis speak Persian (or Dari) and Pashto. There are a number of other minor languages that are related to Persian and other tribal languages spoken, but most people are bilingual. The vast majority of the people are Sunni Muslim, around eighty percent, and another nineteen percent are Shia Muslim. 

Here’s the sad part: Only a little over two percent of the population is over 65 years old. That makes the median age 18 years old, and the average life expectancy at birth to be a mere 45 years old. Boys will spend an average of four more years in school compared with girls. There is a huge need for doctors and hospitals in this country. There’s also a need for clean water and sanitation, which is probably the reason the life expectancy is only 45.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, and most of the heroin used throughout Europe is derived from Afghan opium. Afghanistan is also at the reins of the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) and human rights violations, as well as being watched as a transit for human trafficking and child labor. But that’s probably not the type of thing that’ll get mentioned to the kids.  Not until they’re old enough to find this blog and read it for themselves. My guess is sooner than later.

Next up, something more pleasant: Holidays and Celebrations

Wikipedia articles: “Afghanistan,” “US cities by population,” “National Emblem”


This is the culmination of several ideas I've had over the past year. It started when I realized that people (especially Americans) have a close-minded view of people and issues that take place outside of our borders.  When I was 18 years old, I studied abroad in Japan for a summer through Youth For Understanding. And during one of the orientations before we left, there was an example of cultural awareness that has always stuck with me. They had someone put on a pair of yellow sunglasses and told us it represented us being an American. And there was someone who was standing seven or eight feet away wearing blue sunglasses who represented the host country.  The person with the yellow glasses walked over to the person with blue glasses. At first you would only see things through your yellow glasses.  But after a while, you saw things differently. And it wasn't because you changed glasses. It was because you put on their glasses too.  The point was -- or at least the point I got from it -- was that you never really stop seeing things from the point of view you grew up with. But by observation and cultural awareness and being open to new ideas, you can put on their glasses and see some of what they see too. You can learn to see it both ways. That's the great thing about learning about new cultures: you learn to see things in a new light that you had not considered before. It seems sometimes that we're taught it's an innate behavior to disregard new ideas, things that are anathema to what we've been taught. It shouldn't be that way, though. Diversity makes us stronger, as people and as a global society.

In many of my travels, both domestic and abroad, I've found that there are many things to be learned over food. Food and the preparation of it is one of the basic fundamental practices of human survival. We need food to survive; that's true. But it's also much deeper than that. Food is used as a means of celebration and for milestones, for rituals and special events.  There's a lot to learn of a country or an area by what the people eat, how they prepare it, and how they eat it. Cooking and preparation become a family affair, even including the young children, and it strengthens the core of the family unit.

The whole focal point of this is to teach my six-year-old daughter and my three-year-old son about different countries and different cultures so that they will learn that we are all people, all members of the human race. We just can't continue to keep living as if different races, genders, religious backgrounds, and/or socio-economic statuses are a bad thing. Diversity is the key of life. I've learned that there are more similarities between people overall than there are differences. So, I suppose that's the whole point that I wanted to instill in my children: it takes all kinds to make a world.

I'm using a list of UN member countries from Wikipedia as the basis of the countries I'm using. Every weekend following payday, I'll make one entree and try to make one bread product. (My husband and I are HUGE fans of bread.) This originally started out just trying to make an array of bread products from around the world (hence the name of the blog), but I choose an entree as well so we can sit down to dinner. I think dinner habits are interesting and important to family life. It says a lot about a culture. I'm not domesticated by any means; I'm more of an academic. So, this is something COMPLETELY new to me.  I'm pretty sure this will be a learning experience for everyone. Look forward to the first country in about a week: Afghanistan.